The Saffron Scrutinizer

11 Aug

Praed Korod received a promotion and a transfer on the same day.

He was to serve as a scrutinizer in a section of the constabularia he had never thought much of, Saffron Control. How felicific would his life be chasing down illegal traders of the precious yellow spice? He went to his new office at constabulary headquarters with a feeling of heavy foreboding. Was this to be the high point of his career as an inquirer? Praed shuddered at the thought of himself as a spice detective. He placed a jequiric lozenge in his mouth,then took the levator to the eighth floor site of Saffron Control.

A tall, gangly figure with silver hair and argental eyes rose from a chair in the anteroom of his office. “Sagar Wraken, sir. I am assigned to you as aide,” said the young man, offering his short superior a hand. The two shook, then entered the inner office.

Praed sat down at a small bluewood desk. His assistant remained standing, to the right of the new scrutinizer. On the top of the desk was a thick binder full of notes. Sagar pointed an index finger at it.

“I put together a report on our people and their activities for you to read, sir. It lists all of the agentals who will be under you and what each one of them is at present up to. There is a complete survey of the subjects that concerned your predecessor. All of our cases, all the suspecteds being watched by our personnel. It gives you an idea of the current interests of this office. If any questions come up, I will certainly try to obtain answers for you.”

Praed turned his head to the side and looked up at his aide. “Sit down, please,” he told him. “I shall read this over, but first we should have a little personal talk between the two of us.”

The tall one sat down on a side chair, plainly surprised at the invitation.

Praed turned his swivel chair toward the other man. His purplish brown eyes, an unusual shade close to puce, focused on the stolid face of Sagar. He spoke softly, but bluntly.

“I am quite familiar with the investigative work in the other branches of the contabularia. It has never been my wish to join Saffron Control. How that decision was reached is a foggy mystery to me. But since I am here, it is best for me to describe for you what I expect.

“First of all, loyalty to one another is a prerequisite in all police activity. That is my requirement from you, my good man. I promise complete candor and support to you. This same promise goes to all the agentals under us.”

A few moments of silence followed, till Sagar made a response.

“I understand, sir. You shall enjoy my total loyalty. There will be complete, open communication on my part. Nothing will be held back. Is there anything specific that you might wish to know about our operations out in the field?”

Praed pursed his lips before proceeding.

“I have heard for years that Saffron Control depends on undercover personators and posers. These persons try to infiltrate criminal organizations involved with illegal spice. These disguisers can be useful, I understand. But they must be kept on a leash that is short and tight. How good is our supervision over these anonymous agentives? That greatly concerns me.”

“Our files on that are under lock and key, sir,” replied the aide. “I can go and fetch them while you look over the binder I put together.”

Once Sagar was out of the office, Praed perused the pages before him. They revealed a structure of agentals with the rank of uncoverers, revelators, and examiners. Above these field operators were the discerners and determiners. At the apex was the position of scrutinizer, which Praed had been appointed to fill.

The reader noted the lack of any reference to infiltrating posers and personators. He smiled in silence. This was something he should have foreseen.

In a short time his assistant returned, an amber folder in his hand.

“Thank you,” said the scrutinizer as the files were handed to him. When the lanky aide was gone, he took the folder and attacked it eagerly.

His eyes hunted for a personator who could meet his needs.

Praed sat alone near the door of a salop saloon, eating a dish of fried loach, sipping occasionally from a cup of almond orgeat. His puce eyes scanned the doorway every few seconds. Where was the man he had an appointment to see?

A rotund form in gray surtout and bowler hat to match ambled into the establishment, his colorless eyes roaming about until they fastened on the scutinizer. A look of acknowledgement from the latter brought the heavy one to the small circular table.

“You are Korod, the man who summoned me?” inquired the fat one.

Praed nodded yes. “Please be seated,” he softly murmured.

The pair stared at each other for a time.

“Can I order you something to eat or drink?” asked the superior.

“No, thank you,” answered the man in gray. “I am here on official business, am I not?”

Praed made no comment to this, but proceeded to his purpose.

“As you know by now, I have been appointed scutinizer in Saffron Control. It is my aim to become acquainted with all the operations connected to my office. I am giving special attention to the work of the undercover posers and the disguisers in our employ. There are particular questions I have in mind and wish to ask. Only a field agentive can provide me with the information I need.”

“And that is why you called me here?” said the other.

Praed gave a silent nod.

“Well, I can give you my real name,” muttered the heavy one. “It is Mustat Gaseph.”

“I know that already,” acknowledged the scrutinizer. “My interest centers on your ties to the internal purveyors. This is a focus not on exterior smugglers but rather the bands that sell directly to our citizens.”

The man who called himself Gaseph seemed to darken in the face. He leaned forward over the little table separating him from the scrutinizer.

“Complotters who supply the public are hard to find,” whispered the agential. “I give most of my attention to criminal gangs that are involved in illegal export out of Zafaran.” He paused, staring at his superior with nearly invisible eyes. “What you speak of is a most serious offense. The punishment for it is much more severe than that for sending saffron beyond our borders without excise or inspection stamps.”

“That is why I concentrate upon that particular area of crime,” confessed the scrutinizer. “In my estimation, it is the most difficult area to control.”

“No question about that,” mumbled Gaseph.

Both of them were silent as Praed finished his almond orgeat.

“Let’s go and walk about a while,” proposed the scrutinizer. “There is a plan in my mind that I want to tell you about.”

The pair sat down on a bench in a street park made up of portulacaceous plants, mostly purslane. Praed began by recalling the tragic history of saffron within the borders of Zafaran.

“A generation ago the production and distribution of saffron in this country had no legal restrictions whatsoever. But then came the mass movement to ban its use for purposes of pleasure. Saffron began to be called the powder of sin by the organized zealots. How far could such fanatics go? Finally they proceeded to the limit, the complete prohibition of the yellow spice.

“Strict control was placed on all growers of it. Illegal production had to be stamped out. Each year saw more draconian laws. All supplies have to be for export to foreign markets, for pharmaceutical purposes. Severe punishment can be the fate of those caught in illicit trading. The constabularia has the primary responsibility to identify, pursue, and capture anyone dealing in saffron. A permanent hunt for them has been institutionalized throughout Zafaran.”

Praed stopped, looking sideways at his companion.

“What is this plan of yours?” interrupted Mustat Gaseph abruptly.

“I believe that there is a way for me to hook into the supply bands. This would be a kind of conspiratorial trap for them. I myself will be the main actor in this scheme.”

The colorless eyes of Mustat glowed with an evil light. “You?” was all that the agential managed to get out.

“Indeed. What if they believed that I had become a consumer of saffron? That might tempt them to deal directly with me. They would calculate on using me to carry out all sorts of criminal operations. Do you see what might happen if they believed that I was corrupt and could be led into compromise with them? What might the saffron bands think was possible if they figured I could become their instrument?”

The weighty man replied with a question of his own.

“How far, sir, will you be willing to go? Co-operation with them is a dangerous business.”

“I wish to incriminate the lawbreakers, my good man.”

Mustat considered a moment before committing himself.

“I believe there are several shady characters who would have an interest in a scrutinizer who could be bribed into working with them.”

Praed became excited. “How soon can you bring me definite conformation?”

“Tomorrow morning, sir,” promised the agential to his supervisor.

Having preparations to make, the scrutinizer awoke hours before dawn.

In the bathroom of his apartment flat he carefully thrust a four-inch long cannula into the skin of his upper chest, a little to the right of his heart. In past years he had used this recording inductor in several important cases that he investigated. It was time to equip himself with a taping mechanism that could take down conversation when activated by a slight, unnoticed pressure.

No one will suppose I am the wearer of such an investigative accessory, the new scrutinizer told himself with a thin smile.

He had been sitting in his office at the constabularia only minutes when Sagar Wraken knocked, then entered. The assistant held a small piece of rice paper in his right hand.

“This is a message for you, sir. It came from one of the personators and is marked urgent. I thought you should see it at once.”

“Is it from Mr. Gaseph?”

Sagar nodded that it was, then stepped forward and handed the note to his boss. The latter learned that he was to come to the same salep saloon where he had seen the poser the previous day. Someone of interest would be there to meet with him.

Praed looked up at the assistant with the silver hair.

“I will go out for lunch today,” he announced.”And I may be late in returning.”

“Very good, sir,” mumbled the other as he backed out of the office.

The scrutinizer wondered why his aide seemed so troubled and preoccupied. Did he somehow suspect what his superintendent was up to?

Praed ordered a baked pintado, one of his favorite fishes, and a hesperidium salad to go with it. He sat at the same table as before, near the main entrance. A citric ratafee was his selection for drinking. His eyes were nailed to the door. Would it be Gaseph or someone else this time?

His lunch was almost finished when a small young woman came in. Praed stared at her as she stood there surveying the interior of the busy place. All at once she moved toward him, an expanding smile on her comely face. She wore a bright lemon coat and dark brown jodhpurs. Her ginger hair was short and trim. As she approached his table, Praed noticed a sharp flame in her large coffee eyes.

She spoke first.

“Mustat Gaseph sent me to see you. I presume you are Mr. Korod?”

Praed rose, offering his hand. “Indeed, that is who I am.”

After they shook hands, the scrutinizer invited her to sit across from him.

“Let me introduce myself,” she stated. “My name is Kroka Serotine.”

“Can I order something for you to eat or drink?”

She unexpectedly laughed. “No, thanks. I am here for serious talk about business.”

Praed studied her face for a time.

“There is a small street park close by. Why don’t we go there? It is quiet and isolated.”

The official paid his bill and led the stranger out of the salep saloon, to the garden of portulaca. Soon the pair were seated at the same bench Praed had used the day before.

Kroka Serotine was the first to begin.

“My grandfather grew saffron on his truck farm out on the tableland. But he went bankrupt when the control laws were passed. That was grave tragedy in my family history.

“Do you realize how expensive production can be, whether legal or illegal?

“To make one pound of saffron, a quarter of a million dried stamens are needed. They must be gathered by hand, even today. For the sake of a pound, one grows 75,000 flowers. Saffron has always been sold by the gram. A vial containing one-twentieth of an ounce is the standard amount. It is more often purchased in threads rather than loose powder. But you are certainly familiar with the underground use of the yellow spice.”

Praed grinned devilishly. “My job is to destroy that trade. Unfortunately, that task is impossible. It will always be that way. What do you think, Miss?”

“That is still an open question. It depends on the attitudes within the constabularia.”

He averted his eyes for a moment as his left hand pressed against the inductor button on his chest.

“No doubt your band could carry out business more efficiently if there was cooperation with me and my people. No doubt at all.”

Kroka lowered her voice to nearly a whisper.

“I would call such a person our guardian angel. If we could depend on the agentives for protection and warnings, our operations could be perfect.”

“There are numerous services that my subordinates and I can provide,” suggested the scrutinizers.

She lowered her coffee eyes. “My band knows how to be grateful. We can make generous monetary payments, as well as supply saffron for the personal use of those who help us.”

“Our alliance is agreed upon, then,” concluded Praed with a grin.

“Indeed, it is. The details can easily be worked out. Why don’t we meet again tomorrow, same place and time?”

“That would be fine,” responded the investigator.

“A little present for you,” she murmured to him, handing over to him a tiny vial from the pocket of her coat jacket.

Kroka rose and walked away. Praed turned off his cannula recorder.

Climbing down from a tramline car in front of the constbularia building, he had a sudden feeling of peril and unease. Two large men in gray weathercoats rushed to him from both sides. In seconds they had Praed sandwiched between them.

“Excuse this action, but we wish to search you,” said one of the pair apologetically.

The other, a muscle-bound bruiser, reached quickly into the scrutinizer’s inside coat pocket, pulling out the vial with strings of yellow in it. The bruin held it up close to his dark eyes.

“This looks like contraband,” said the big man. “You are under arrest and must come with us.”

The prisoner felt his body shake. “This is ridiculous. Do you know who I am?”

It was the first man who answered. “We know everything about you. It is best you do as told, without resistance or trouble.”

Praed saw the sense in that and obeyed his captors. The threesome walked around to the back of the constabulary headquarters, to the heating unit of the enormous structure. The group entered a nondescript storage section.

Puzzlement reigned in the mind of the scrutinizer. Who were these arresters? What were they up to?

Stopping before a blankwood door, the bruiser opened it and gave Praed a gentle push into an empty room lit by daylight from a high, circular window. One of the abductors slammed the door shut. The arrestee was left all alone for several minutes to ponder the riddle of his situation. Then all at once the door started to open. Praed gasped in surprise. It was Sagar Wraken who walked into the room.

The two exchanged questioning looks as the tall aide stepped closer.

“What is going on?” demanded the scrutinizer, his voice raw with desperation.

The assistant gave the sardonic laugh of a thorough cynic.

“I am told that a vial of saffron threads was discovered on you, sir. That is an enormously serious crime, as both of us know. This can be a grave danger to your career. No one can predict what your future may now come to hold.”

Praed grew increasingly excited. “But I was carrying out an entrapping operation along with Mustat Gaseph, a personator we use. Today I made contact with the leader of an underworld band. The saffron found on me was a gift from the head contrabandist, a woman named Kroka Serotine. Have you ever heard of her?”

“I am familiar with the business of that group,” dryly said the aide.

“We now have the opportunity to catch an entire syndicate in our nets, Sagar. I have convinced this woman that I am willing to protect and assist her gang. Many criminals will be caught by my deception. It promises us a colossal victory.”

The assistant appeared to be smirking at his boss.

“You do not perceive the truth yet. I am familiar with Miss Serotine. We have communicated for a number of years. Her band already enjoys shelter within Saffron Control. As a newcomer, you became an additional recruit within an existing complot.”

Praed blanched with astonishment. It took him several seconds to restore some degree of inner equilibrium. All of a sudden he broke out with a series of deep coughs. As he took control again, his hand went up to the middle of his chest. He pressed down and activated the cannula inductor.

The scutinizer decided to ask a question about the future.

“You wish me to join in protecting the saffron trade gang of this woman, Kroka Serotine?”

“There is no need for you yourself to take any active part. Things will continue as they have. I will still carry out the communications and exchanges between her band and our agentials.”

“Tell me this, Sagar: are payments made to you and the others involved?”

“Of course, sir. And I can assure you that Kroka will not forget or overlook you.”

Praed took a step forward. “Our section will remain a protective shield of her saffron operation, then.”

“Free spice is one of our primary benefits,” archly smiled Sagar. “Our agentives never lack yellow strings or powder.”

The scrutinizer reached forward with his right hand, taking that of his aide. The two shook hands with vigor.

“I’ll go back to the office and continue work as usual,” said the senior official. He turned away and walked out of the room. Only when outdoors did his hand rise to his chest and turn off the recorder.

I have them, all of them. Sagar and his agentials, Kroka and her band. My secret mission within Saffron Control is now successfully completed.

The image of Kroka Serotine suddenly flashed into his mind.

The woman will be sent to prison like the others. Who can say when she will be free again?

Praed did not return to his office, but headed for the Internal Inspectorate of the Constabularia.

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